The crew lashes the sperm whale they have caught to the side of the ship to be dealt with in daylight. But the men are forced to poke with spades or kill the numerous sharks that attempt to devour the whale carcass. Ishmael warns that it is unwise “to meddle with the corpses and ghosts of these creatures”: Queequeg nearly has his hand cut off by the sharp teeth of one dead shark hoisted onto the ship for its skin.
The gory business of “cutting-in,” or processing the whale, commences. The cutting-in involves inserting a hook in the whale’s blubber and peeling the blubber off as one might peel off an orange rind in one strip.
As he describes the whale’s blubber, Ishmael argues that this strip of flesh is actually the whale’s skin. A thin and cellophane-like layer may be observed outside of the blubber, but this layer is only the skin of the skin. Ishmael admires the whale for its “thick walls,” which allow it to live without being affected by its environment.
After the cutting-in, the whale is released for its “funeral,” in which the “mourners” are vultures and sharks. The frightful white carcass floats away, and a “vengeful ghost” hovers over it, deterring other ships from going near it. Frequently, floating whale corpses are mistaken for rocks and shoals and thus entered on mariners’ charts, causing future whalers to avoid the area. The whale thus continues to inspire terror even in death.
Ishmael describes the “scientific anatomical feat” of the whale’s beheading, which occurs before the carcass is released; the head holds the valuable spermaceti, from which the finest oil comes. While the crew takes a break for a meal, Ahab talks to the whale’s head hanging at the ship’s side, asking it to tell him of the horrors that it has seen.
While Ahab converses with the whale, the Jeroboam, another whaling ship, sails into sight. An epidemic has broken out aboard her, so her captain doesn’t board the Pequod but brings a small boat alongside for a talk with Ahab. Stubb recognizes one of the men at the oars of the boat as a man about whom he has heard from the crew of the Town-Ho during the last gam. This man, who had been a prophet among the Shakers in New York, proclaimed himself the archangel Gabriel on the ship, ordered the captain to jump overboard, and mesmerized the crew. The Jeroboam’s skipper, Captain Mayhew, wanted to get rid of Gabriel at the next port, but the crew threatened to desert if he was put ashore.
The sailors aboard the Pequod now see this very Gabriel in front of them. As Captain Mayhew tells Ahab a story about the White Whale, Gabriel interrupts continually. According to Mayhew, he and his men first heard about the existence of Moby Dick when they were speaking to another ship. Gabriel then warned against killing it, calling it “the Shaker God incarnated.” They ran into Moby Dick a year later, and the ship’s leaders decided to hunt it. As a mate stood in the ship to throw his lance, the whale flipped the mate into the air and tossed him into the sea. No one was harmed except for the mate, who drowned.
Gabriel had watched this episode from the masthead. The apparent fulfillment of his prophecy has led the crew to become his disciples. When Ahab confirms that he still intends to hunt the White Whale, Gabriel points to him, saying, “Think, think of the blasphemer—dead, and down there!—beware of the blasphemer’s end!” Ahab realizes that the Pequod is carrying a letter for the dead mate and tries to hand it over to Captain Mayhew on the end of a cutting-spade pole. Gabriel manages to grab it, impales it on the boat-knife, and sends it back to Ahab’s feet as the Jeroboam’s boat pulls away.
Ishmael backtracks to explain how Queequeg initially inserts the blubber hook into the whale for the cutting-in. Ishmael, as Queequeg’s bowsman, ties the monkey-rope around his own waist, “wedding” himself to Queequeg, who is on the whale’s floating body trying to attach the hook. (In a footnote, we learn that only on the Pequod were the monkey and this holder actually tied together, an improvement introduced by Stubb, who found that it increases the reliability of the holder.) While Ishmael holds Queequeg, Tashtego and Daggoo brandish their whale-spades to keep the sharks away. When Dough-Boy, the steward, offers Queequeg some tepid ginger and water, the mates frown at the influence of pesky Temperance activists and make the steward bring him alcohol. The remainder of the ginger, a gift from “Aunt Charity,” a Nantucket matron, is thrown overboard.
The Pequod spots a right whale. After killing the whale, Stubb asks Flask what Ahab might want with this “lump of foul lard” (right whales were far less valuable than sperm whales). Flask responds that Fedallah says that a whaler with a sperm whale’s head on her starboard side and a right whale’s head on her larboard will never capsize afterward. They then both confess that they don’t like Fedallah and think of him as “the devil in disguise.” The right whale’s head is lifted onto the opposite side of the boat from the sperm whale’s head, and, in fact, the Pequod settles into balance. As Ishmael observes, however, the ship would float even better with neither head there. He observes Fedallah standing in Ahab’s shadow and notes that Fedallah’s shadow “seem[s] to blend with, and lengthen Ahab’s.”
This series of chapters juxtaposes the practical matters of whaling with a series of perceptual problems. The sharks that swarm around the boat seem to possess malevolent agency even after they are killed. Whale carcasses find their way into ships’ logs as rocks or shoals, giving rise to long-lasting errors. Ishmael argues that the whale’s blubber is its skin, but his argument suggests that any such classification of the whale’s parts must be arbitrary. Such difficulties suggest that mistakes and misreadings cannot be avoided, and that comparison and approximation are the only means by which things can be described.
Instead of anthropomorphizing the whale—that is, assigning it human characteristics—Ishmael takes features of the whale and presents them as potential models for human life. He admires and envies the whale’s blubber, which insulates the whale and enables it to withstand its environment, as evidenced by his cry of “Oh, man! admire and model thyself after the whale!” For Ishmael, however, the human acquiring of such an attribute has metaphorical significance: the idea of “remain[ing] warm among ice” hearkens back to the image, in Chapter 58, of the soul’s small island of “peace and joy” amid terrorizing oceans. With its “rare virtue of a strong individual vitality,” then, the whale, unlike man, according to Ishmael, exists in a sort of bliss of perfection, self-possession, and independence.
These chapters return to the topic of male bonding and homoeroticism explored in the early stages of the relationship between Queequeg and Ishmael. The monkey rope—“an elongated Siamese ligature”—connects the two men as if they were twins. They are joined in a “wedding” once again and, “should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demand . . . that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag [Ishmael] down in his wake.” This new bond makes the “till death do us part” clause of the Christian marriage ceremony literal: only death can sever the tie that binds Ishmael to Queequeg at this moment. As they depend on one another for their very lives, the bonds between the two are stronger than the relationship they had back on land. These men know they can trust one another because that trust is tested on a daily basis. This all-male world is more egalitarian, more open, and even more loving than the heterosexual world back home. By using the vocabulary of love and marriage—the primary relationships in our society—to describe the bonds between these men, Melville suggests that these shipboard pairings are models of ideal partnership.
The encounter with the Jeroboam is one of the most important of the series of visits that the Pequod entertains from other ships. The introduction of a group of outsiders provides perspective on the actions of Ahab and his crew. The appearance of the crazed prophet Gabriel invites the reader to compare Gabriel’s mental state to that of Ahab and Fedallah: each of these characters claims to possess prophetic or occult knowledge, but each of them may be crazy.